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Charter School Leader Says Bid To Become Nation’s Largest Charter Union Could Hurt Schools

Updated at 4:15 p.m.

Staff at Chicago's largest and most prominent public charter school network announced on Friday that they want to start a union, but the head of the school network said doing so could hurt its 17 schools.

If successful, the 800 teachers and staff at the Noble Network of Charter Schools would be the biggest charter union in the nation. WBEZ first reported the organizing effort early on Friday.

“In my experience as a former CPS teacher, I believe a restrictive union contract could eliminate the curriculum and flexibility we have to best serve our students’ needs,” Noble founder and CEO Michael Milkie said in a statement.

Milkie started the first Noble Street charter school in 1999 after leaving his job at a regular Chicago public high school. The network has grown to 17 schools serving more than 12,000 students.

The schools are supported by prominent Chicagoans, including Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, former U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and current Chicago Board of Education Chairman Frank Clark.

Milkie got the news on Friday morning in an open letter to management. The letter asks Milkie and Noble leaders not to interfere with the organizing efforts. 

“We respect the rights of individuals to organize or not organize, and we will continue to address concerns of teachers, staff, parents, and all members of the Noble community,” Milkie said in his statement.

Seeking neutrality at the outset of an organizing effort is standard practice. Charters are publicly funded but privately run schools that are freed from some of the rules and constraints of traditional public schools. Starting charter school unions can be controversial because many charter leaders said unions create red tape and undermine their autonomy. Some charter unions have alleged management obstruction.

Mariel Race, a Noble teacher involved in the organizing effort, said her group hasn’t gotten any response from Noble management. But she said her colleagues are reacting enthusiastically. 

On Friday morning, union organizers passed out leaflets as colleagues entered a training session. 

“We got a lot of really positive reactions,” Race said. “I honestly didn’t encounter any negativity. People were really excited.”

Like Milkie, she too hopes that any contract that results from their organizing is not restrictive.

Allison Fifolt, a math teacher at Noble Street’s Pritzker College Prep, said she thinks a union will only make the schools better. 

“One of my biggest concerns is that this is going to be misconstrued as conflict, as us vs. them,” Fifolt said.

One of the biggest issues organizers want to address is high teacher turnover. According to the most recent state data, about a third of Noble teachers leave each year. This is better than many other charter school networks, but worse than the average at traditional district-run schools.

Spanish teacher Christina Verdos-Petrou said she got involved in the union effort after the return of a former student opened her eyes to the impact of teacher turnover.

“I was the only one he recognized,” said Verdos-Petrou, who works at Noble’s Golder College Prep campus in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood. “It is truly heartbreaking when I see our students come back and they do not recognize the majority of staff in the building.”

Noble teachers hope to join an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

"They're joining together for the same reason as thousands of their colleagues -- so they can improve kids' well-being and help them achieve their dreams," AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. "I'm excited the Noble educators are raising their voice and we will be standing together with them in their fight."

Organizers note that Noble Street does not have a pay scale, or even promise yearly cost of living increases. Teachers say they must ask for raises, which results in a variation among salaries.

Last year, Catalyst-Chicago, a now defunct independent education magazine, reported that nearly 40 percent of Noble’s staff did not think they were compensated appropriately.

The magazine found that Noble Street teachers make about $52,000 in salaries on average, but also get $5,500 in performance bonuses and $2,000 extra in stipends. That’s still about $15,000 less than the average CPS teacher.

If Noble Street does unionize, the teachers will join more than a dozen Chicago charter schools that already have unions. About 10 percent of all charter schools nationwide are unionized.

Recently, unionized staff at Chicago’s Aspira Charter School Network voted to authorize a strike. Organizers say negotiations are at a standstill and they plan to announce a strike date on Tuesday morning. Also, UNO charter school network staff nearly walked out last fall.

Sarah Karp is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @sskedreporter or @wbezeducation.

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